Labor Department Nominee Questioned On Housing Case

President Obama's pick to lead the Labor Department faced some tough questions at his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Thomas Perez gained a reputation as a tough workplace regulator during his tenure at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

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President Obama's nominee to head the Labor Department, Thomas Perez, appeared before a Senate committee today where he tried to portray himself as a bipartisan problem-solver who could listen to all sides. While the tone of the hearing was friendly, Perez faced some skeptical questions about a housing discrimination case he was involved with at the Justice Department.

NPR's Jim Zarroli has the story.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Perez was lauded by Democrats as an American success story, a son of Dominican immigrants who went on to Harvard Law School before becoming Maryland's secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. As a public official, he said he had learned to work with people of all political stripes.

THOMAS PEREZ: I've always tried to listen more than I talk, to approach contentious issues with an open mind and basic respect, to build broad coalitions of business leaders, labor unions and others in pursuit of constructive solutions to tough problems.

ZARROLI: But Republicans on the committee quickly turned the focus to Perez's more recent stint at the Justice Department. A House report says Perez urged the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, not to appeal a housing discrimination case to the Supreme Court because he worried about how it would come out. And the report says, at the same time, the Justice Department agreed not to intervene into whistleblower suits involving the city. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander grilled Perez about what had happened.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: That seems to me to be an extraordinary amount of wheeling and dealing outside the normal responsibilities of the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

ZARROLI: In response, Perez acknowledged that he didn't want to see the St. Paul case go to the Supreme Court because the court might have struck down a law that enables the government to bring certain types of lending discrimination cases. Bad facts make bad laws, he said. But Perez denied there had been any quid pro quo between the Justice Department and St. Paul. And Perez told the committee the decision not to intervene in the whistleblower cases had been made by other people.

PEREZ: The judgment that it was a weak case was a judgment that was not made by Tom Perez. It was made by seasoned people in the civil division.

ZARROLI: The nomination of Perez puts Republicans in a delicate position. At a time when the party would like to broaden its outreach to Latinos, voting against him could easily backfire, and yet, many Republicans see him as ideologically motivated. South Carolina's newly appointed Senator Tim Scott took Perez to task for opposing his state's voter ID law.

SENATOR TIM SCOTT: Can we expect a more open, a more fair and a more balanced approach from you as the head of the Department of Labor?

PEREZ: Sir, I believe that I have been always open and fair, and I will continue to do so, and I will...

ZARROLI: Strangely for a time of high unemployment, few of the questions had much to do with labor policy. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont noted that the Labor Department's monthly unemployment rate is misleading because it doesn't include discouraged workers who have stopped looking for jobs. He asked if Perez could find a way to make the numbers more representative. Perez said he looked forward to finding a way to tell the story of what's happening if he's confirmed. The committee is expected to vote on his nomination next week. And if he's approved, he faces another vote in the full Senate. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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